Mention New Jersey to anyone in the music business these days, and the name Bruce Springsteen comes to mind almost automatically. But Springsteen and his E Street Band aren’t the only world-class acts to originate in Jersey—and still call the state home. Some 40 miles north of Springsteen’s base, Asbury Park—Exit 14 on the New Jersey Turnpike, to be more exact—is Jersey City. That’s Kool & The Gang territory. And just in case you’re not aware of them, the Gang’s accomplishments in pop music are indeed as impressive as Springsteen’s. Consider the facts: Kool & The Gang has placed more hit singles (ten) in the Top 40 than any other band of the 1980s. The group has a string of five gold albums in a row, three of which are also platinum. Like Springsteen, Kool and company are very active in charitable causes. Kool and members of the band were the only American pop stars to sing on the British-made single, “Do They Know It’s Christmas, ” and a January gig at New York’s Avery Fisher Hall raised thousands of dollars for the United Negro College Fund. Finally, like Springsteen’s “Born To Run,” which is widely considered one of the greatest rock anthems ever recorded, Kool & The Gang’s “Celebration” has become one of the most instantly recognizable tunes of our time.
“Kool & The Gang appeals to totally different audiences,” says one music industry observer. “But like Springsteen, Kool and his band have this unbelievable ability to get people dancing in their seats whenever and wherever they play. I don’t know. It must be something in the Jersey air.” Or in the band’s rhythm department. George Brown, aka Funky George to his friends, has been Kool & The Gang’s drummer ever since the band formed in the late ’60s. A long time ago, he decided that, if he was ever going to do something of lasting merit in his life, it was going to be in music.
“I have absolutely no complaints with the way my career has gone,” says Brown. “I’ve been playing drums for 20 years now, and been with Kool & The Gang for nearly as long. When I think about all the good music the band has made, I feel proud and happy that I’ve done my part.” It’s a fairly big part at that. Listen to the hot bottom of songs like “Funky Stuff” and “Jungle Boogie, ” or the bright, upbeat rhythm heard on “Celebration,” or the thick snare work that powers “Emergency,” the group’s latest hit single.
Sitting in his manager’s midtown Manhattan office, Brown is surrounded by framed Kool & The Gang posters and hit records. “Teamwork—that’s what put all these things on the walls,” he says, nodding approvingly, as he scans the room and the memories of years of record making and touring. “I think a drummer, more than anyone else in a band, is aware of that, because the drummer is not usually the one to gel the heaps of praise. Kool & The Gang, though, is like one big family. My primary job has always been to keep the beat and provide the base from which everyone else can work. It’s what the band knows I’m going to do. That can‘t help but give one a sense of self-satisfaction.” Aside from the fact that he’s a top-notch pop-funk drummer, Brown is also a competent keyboard player and a pretty decent songwriter. During our conversation, he touched on these, plus his drumming philosophy, his roots, and his love for jazz. A warm, affable person with an outlook on life that’s as bright as his drumming, Brown is, more than anything else, a drummer’s drummer.
RS: Kool & The Gang has had such a wealth of success over the years: gold and platinum records, Top-40 hits, acclaim all over the world. You’ve been with the group from its inception. How do you account for all these accomplishments?
GB: A lot of it comes from The Creator. After all, we’re just instruments of The Creator, when you get right down to it. But in addition to this, Kool & The Gang has also tried to look for things in music and the performance of it that are fresh and new. What we try to do is stay ahead of what’s happening. Out in the world and in the music business, we always strive to be right on top of it all.
RS: Personally speaking, what has been your role in the Kool & The Gang success, aside, of course, from that of drummer?
GB: Over the years, I’ve been playing keyboards as well as drums—not in the band, but on my own. And I’ve written a bunch of songs on the piano that turned out to be big hits for Kool & The Gang.
RS: What are some of these songs?
GB: Oh, let’s see: “Ladies Night,” “Too Hot,” “Jones Vs Jones,” and others. But I’ve also had other creative impulses and inputs, to get back to your original question. I’ve been involved in such things as wardrobe and staging, too. I mean, I’m definitely more than just the drummer of Kool & The Gang, if that’s what you’re getting at.
RS: Kool & The Gang is one of the most eclectic bands in black pop music. There are just so many different elements that work into the structure of the band’s music. One can find bits of jazz, funk, R&B, pop, rock, and even blues and some Gospel on occasion. As the group’s drummer, does this pose a problem for you?
GB: It’s not exactly a problem, although I will say it’s certainly a challenge at times. I can play all styles of music. I love and look forward to new things—things that are formed by combining two types of music, or what have you. But sure, sometimes it’s challenging.
RS: Listening to the Kool & The Gang recording catalog, it’s fairly easy to identify a consistent jazz undertone to many of your songs.
GB: That’s very true. You know, before we were Kool & The Gang, we were the Jazziacs. This, of course, was in the early days in Jersey City, where the group originated. Our backgrounds are definitely very strong in jazz. There’s no doubt about that. Through the years, we’ve always striven to keep that jazz sound and jazz style in the music. Whether it was in the chord structure of a tune or the horn arrangements to it, it would be there. As for our rhythm department, it’s always swinging. If it’s groovin’, it’s swingin’. That’s the way it is for us; that’s the way I play drums. It’s an essential part of the Kool & The Gang sound. I don’t think we’ll ever lose it. But I think that, if it got any stronger, there would definitely be some people—fans, critics—who would start to call us a jazz group.
RS: If I’m reading you right, that wouldn’t be something the band would be real excited about.
GB: Well, we have to be careful. See, when we get real close to sounding like a real jazz group, we get people in the audience who start saying, “Hey man, what are they playing?” And someone will answer, “They’re playing jazz.” In the early days, we’d actually play tunes like “Song For My Father”—things like that.
RS: Yet, as much as there are obvious strains of jazz running through Kool & The Gang, there are also obvious strains of pure pop music. You’ve managed to take in both ends of the music spectrum—the artistic and the commercial—and have been very successful doing it.
GB: Well, I’ll tell you, we’ve learned a lot about that sort of thing from Quincy Jones. He does that very well. So does Herbie Hancock.
RS: As for your drumming background, would you say that you have more experience playing jazz than you do R&B, funk, or pop?
GB: My background is a mixture of all of them, actually. When I started playing the drums, I’d listen to as much Motown as I would jazz.
RS: Did you study the drums formally?
GB: No. When I first started to get serious with music, I think I was more interested in playing keyboards and learning about music in general than I was in learning the drums in particular. But since I wanted to study music formally, I knew I had to learn intervals. To learn intervals, you play kettledrums and keyboards. That was the extent of any real training I put myself through. A couple of years after that, the band started to record, and things started happening. So there was really no time to go back and attend a music school. It’s funny that you should ask that question, because at the present, I’m looking for a good teacher to study with. I’m a big believer in the continuous learning concept. You never stop learning. There’s always something new to learn or to pick up.
RS: Where did your interest in music come from? Was either your mother or your father a musician or singer?
GB: My mother was a singer; she still has a very beautiful voice. But as for my musical desires, I think they’re God-given. I’ve always felt this urge to be involved in music. I mean, I started beating on boxes and tapping on windows when I was a little kid. But believe it or not, before I got my first drumkit, I picked up a sax in a thrift shop. I tried to play it, but the drums were on my mind. I saw this drum in another thrift shop on Monticello Avenue in Jersey City. I also walked past one in a pawn shop. But the one in the thrift shop window only cost 25¢, see. So that’s the one I wound up with. I paid the man a quarter, and out I walked with this big old drum under my arm. It only had one head—on top. It was real calfskin, but it was eaten away. So I eventually took it off and replaced it. I put it on a stand, and I was ready to go!
RS: How old were you at this time?
GB: Oh, I guess I was 12 years old.
RS: Do you recall your very first drumkit?
GB: How can I forget! The first drum of that kit was the tom-tom I got out of the thrift shop. Then I got a paper route, saved my money, and finally bought a $39 snare drum. There was also another drum I saw in a downtown Jersey City pawn shop. I think it cost something like $14. So 1 bought that one, too. The only thing I didn’t have that I really wanted was a hi-hat. I remember taking that set and doing it up with contact paper. Contact paper was very big back in the ’60s, remember? Everybody had drums with contact paper on them. Then I got some leopard-skin paper on top of that. It looked mighty cool for its day, let me tell you. The biggest problem I had with that set was that it would always fall down—just plain old collapse when I played it too hard. My second kit was a Gretsch with the wide snares. But that set was too mellow for me. It was a metal set, which is great for jazz. But it just didn’t work for me the way I wanted it to.
RS: Before you helped form Kool & The Gang, were there any other bands of note that you played in?
GB: No, there weren’t any other bands, because when we formed Kool & The Gang, I was only 14 or 15 years old. What was happening, however, was Rick West, our keyboard player, and I lived in the same Jersey City apartment house. The two of us, along with another fellow, would make the coffeehouse scene around town. At the time, Jersey City had a bunch of these little coffeehouses, and we’d play there. Rick would play piano, the other dude would play xylophone, and I’d play my snare drum. Then we got people to sing with us, or hit a tambourine or something. It was a lot of fun whichever way you looked at it. But by 1965, through Rick West, I met Ronald Bell [saxophone] and Robert Mickens [trumpet]. Robert’s brother had a group called the Five Sounds. So we formed something of a little group called the Five Sounds Junior. Robert “Kool” Bell was the Five Sounds’ leader. Well, this was my first group experience, and it was Kool’s, too. We’d cross the river and go on over to the Cafe Wha? in Greenwich Village. We played there a lot. And there were other gigs, too. I played a lot of the after-hours clubs in Newark and Manhattan with different people. I played jazz; I played blues. Actually, I played whatever I could. I was an aspiring drummer, but more important, I just wanted to be a full-time musician. I wasn’t looking for any part-time gigs if I could help it. I wanted to support myself fully as a musician. That meant a lot to me at the time.
RS: A couple of years before you did your gigging in and around Jersey City, another local drummer, Dino Danelli, who would, of course, later on play drums for the Young Rascals, was doing the same thing. Did you ever run into him back then?
GB: No, I never did. I wish I did, though. That would have been great. He was from the Marion Gardens area of Jersey City, I think. I loved the Rascals. I really did.
RS: So how did all of what was going on eventually turn into Kool & The Gang?
GB: Well, Robert Mickens, Ronald Bell, and I proceeded to go to Incarnation Church and practice there as much as we could. It was the only place in Jersey City where we could really practice. We’d do things like “Take Five,” “Song For My Father,” “One Note Samba”—things like these. As time went on, we realized that we needed a bass player, so one day Kool just picked up the bass and started to play it. The things we did after that—the gigs at the Cafe Wha? every weekend—were the beginning of Kool & The Gang. The Cafe Wha? management would give us milk shakes and food, but not too much money.
RS: The Cafe Wha? in the 1960s was a pretty popular place to launch a group or career in music.
GB: You know it. Jimi Hendrix would play there all the time. Richie Havens got his start there. If I recall correctly, Richard Pryor and Flip Wilson also began there. It was a great place, no question about that.
RS: Did you ever play the Apollo Theater up in Harlem?
GB: Later on we did many times. And what a hall! The Apollo was a great proving ground for us, as well as a great place to learn your craft. Some very, very fine people played there, as I’m sure you know.
RS: Was there ever a time when you thought about doing something other than playing music?
GB: Only if you go all the way back to when I was a kid. I wanted to be a chemist back then, of all things. I also ran track in high school. And it got to the point where my coach used to say, “You know, George, you can get a track scholarship to college if you work hard.” But then I started missing track practice, and at one meet the coach came up to me and said, “I’m giving you a choice, Brown. It’s either music or track.” So I said, “Oh well, good-bye.” And that was it.
RS: Switching gears a little bit, let’s talk about the Kool & The Gang of today. When the band goes into the studio, how do you figure in its record-making process, aside, once again, from merely playing drums?
GB: I have a pretty important role in the studio, I think. I respect everyone else’s talent and abilities, and everyone else respects mine. So it’s a pretty nice working relationship. Since I do a lot of writing, my ideas for songs are taken seriously. I like that. Sometimes we spend hours on certain song ideas, constantly searching for a way to make them work. I’m involved in both the musical and lyrical departments, because I write both. I have a big mouth in the studio; I comment on just about everything. Sometimes I think I irritate some members of the group a bit. But if a song doesn’t lay right with me in the studio, I’m the first one to voice an opinion. Sometimes, like I said, it’s not appreciated, but that’s because, during the creative process of developing a song or making a record, people get touchy. There were times in the past—before click tracks—where I would have some problems with a particular track, and I’d do the listening instead of talking. But all in all, Kool & The Gang’s recording process is a democratic one. We all contribute in one way or another, and we do it by going beyond just the requirements of our instruments.
RS: Do you do much keyboard work in the studio?
GB: No. What I do is this: At home, I record a new song on an eight-track unit and sing on it. Then I put my drum machine on it—yes, drum machine—and present it to the group. I did some outside production things in the past where I played some keyboards, but never with Kool & The Gang, because we have a keyboard player, Curtis Williams, and he’s very proficient. So, basically, I just use my keyboard knowledge to compose and play at home.
RS: You’ve certainly stepped out from behind your drumkit, so to speak, and taken the responsibility for more than just the beat of Kool & The Gang’s music. That must make you feel good.
GB: Absolutely. I write and get involved in the studio, because I think most, if not all, drummers have this innate feel of harmony and melody that they’d love to get out. And when they pick up another instrument, such as, for instance, a guitar or piano, they come up with some of the hippest rhythms, man. Drummers who play keyboards or guitar, especially if they’re playing jazz, can accent and feel the flow of the music, as well as the expansion and contraction of the chorus, the same way they do when playing the rhythm. They also understand a whole lot concerning melody inferences. Drummers are, for the most part, underutilized in many groups—too many groups. And that’s too bad, because they have a lot to offer in many other aspects than just playing drums.
RS: Do you advocate drummers learning another instrument, then, to bring this all about?
GB: Sure. I would also advocate things like a keyboard player learning to play the drums. It’s an expansion of knowledge that is useful. It gives one a new perspective—a new attitude towards music.
RS: Do you do session work?
GB: No. When I was younger I used to, but not anymore. Although I must say that I’d like to get some calls to do some work. I think it would be fun.
RS: You said before that you did some producing.
GB: Yeah, that’s right. I produced a couple of groups a while back; they used my songs—my arrangements—but nothing came of it. The financial crunch in the industry saw to that. But I’m really looking forward to doing some things in the future. I have a few ideas of my own that I want to develop outside of Kool & The Gang. That’s not to say I plan to leave the group or anything like that. It’s just that I have some material I’ve written that I’d really like to get out. I have a real urge to do some singing, too.
RS: That sounds like a possible solo album.
GB: Well, yeah, that hopefully would be the end result of it all, but always within the framework and family of Kool & The Gang. That’s important to note, because that’s a mistake so many people seem to make in this business.
RS: And why is that?
GB: I don’t know why that’s so; I only know that it is. But as for me and Kool & The Gang, we all have a love for each other, and that comes first. Yet, we all need additional modes of expression, and if you don’t let out your creativity, it can turn into frustration. We all understand this. And it’s interesting, because when you do these outside things, if they’re done with the right perspective, everyone stands to gain. You’ve released some creative energy, and the band is the recipient of any new ideas you might have discovered in the process.
RS: You’ve been with Kool & The Gang since the group’s beginning. Obviously, there are many advantages to playing with one group for such a long time. Are there any disadvantages?
GB: I can’t think of any, to tell you the truth. Some musicians might say that they get tired of playing the same songs over and over again. But each time Kool & The Gang performs live, it’s different. It might be the same songs, but the feelings from those songs that come out of each of the musicians on stage give everything a freshness—a rebirth. Sometimes the traveling gets to be a drag. But as soon as you hit the stage, the energy generated by the people in the audience makes things really exciting. We give 100% at every performance—sometimes 200%. That’s no lie. We’ll come off stage, and despite being tired and drawn, we’ll still have this certain energy that makes it hard to come down. Another thing: You have to tour, because if you just make records and never get out and play for people, you get stale. You don’t know what’s happening out there in the streets. New York might be saying and doing one thing, but Chicago and L.A. might be doing something entirely different. All good musicians and other artists—dancers, actors, painters—mirror society. So it’s our job to get out there with the people and check out what they feel is important: That’s the job of a recording artist and entertainer, as far as I’m concerned.
RS: How much rehearsing does Kool & The Gang do before entering the studio to record an album?
GB: We rehearse a lot. We rehearse all the songs we plan to record before we ever go into the studio. When we did the Something Special album, we went up to the Bearsville studios in New York State, and rehearsed and rehearsed. That was a big album for us. I attribute our ability to rehearse and get things right before we roll the tape to our background in jazz. But in the past few years, we’ve been touring so much that a lot of the prerecording work is actually done right then and there in the studio. I mean, we write on the road because we’re so busy with tours. Fortunately, we haven’t suffered any loss of quality.
RS: What are some of the important attitudes that a drummer needs in the recording studio?
GB: Well, let me first say this: All drummers have got to be able to hear themselves through the cans. Of course, that’s true not only in the studio, but also up on stage. And it’s true not only for drummers, but for all musicians. You’ve got to be able to hear yourself. Drummers also should be totally comfortable—mentally, spiritually, and physically. Everything else really follows these essentials. Without these things happening, what ultimately is recorded isn’t going to be your best—unless you get lucky.
RS: You mention being comfortable spiritually. Exactly what do you mean by that?
GB: Well, we’re all searching for that inner peace, you know. Obviously, I go through all the same problems that we all go through in trying to attain it. So it’s that sort of thing I’m talking about. I really do believe that musicians, especially drummers, in order to be consistent in performance and output, must make sure they’re in positions of total comfort. I’m not talking about physical comfort necessarily; I’m talking about comfort in the form of inner peace. I do attribute my success to spiritual satisfaction, and every day I try to take the time to thank The Creator for the talent and inner peace I have when playing the drums. A lot of times I’ll listen back to what I’ve just played and say, “Wow! I played that? I did that?” See, I know that any talent I have as a drummer—as a musician—is directed from above.
RS: Do you enjoy playing live more than you do playing in the studio?
GB: They both have their own thrill. Live, you get to experiment a little bit more, but still be consistent, of course. In the studio, you get to play new material, which, more than likely, you’re really eager to play. It’s a new groove to you. That’s exciting for any musician.
RS: Can you recall a particularly fond, memorable moment you had performing live?
GB: Oh yeah. One time we were playing the song “Too Hot” in Dallas, Texas. It was a perfect song to play because the temperature was unbearable. But no one figured the piano would catch fire; it did. Another time we were doing the song “No Show.” If you ever heard us perform the song live, you’d know that we have this thunder soundtrack that we use for special effects. The song deals with this guy waiting for his date in the pouring rain. Well, we played the thunder, and suddenly, the sky broke and it began to pour! Talk about the power of live music.
RS: Do you get a chance to solo much on stage?
GB: The thing about solos is that you have to have highlights throughout the solo to spark the audience’s ears. I think a drum solo is performed properly when you know precisely how and when to end it. Knowing when to stop is so important. Otherwise the solo is gratifying to yourself, but not to anyone else. But our show is just so tight that there’s no time for me to take an extended solo. I’ll do little riffs here and there. It’s enough to keep me satisfied. But I’ll tell you what I like most, and that’s playing mini solos on the tonics and amazing myself with what I come up with. I’m not patting myself on the back; I think all musicians at one time or another feel this way. It’s a good feeling; it’s what keeps you going and what keeps you progressing as a drummer.
RS: What would you say is your most enduring quality as a drummer?
GB: Probably my aggressiveness. I play very hot and very heavy. I like ballads; I write a lot of ballads. But I love playing up-tempo things. I like to stay right on top of every song I play.
RS: Kool & The Gang’s “Celebration” has become more than just another hit single for the band. The tune is actually part of our culture now. You hear it at weddings, birthday parties, sporting events—anyplace and everyplace where there’s a cause to, well, celebrate. When that song was being recorded, was there any magic in the air that revealed what was to come?
GB: Do you know something? They even played that song when the hostages came home from Iran. That song came about when we were doing the American Music Awards a few years ago. I think we were even up for an award, if I remember right. Anyway, in the song, “Ladies Night,” there’s a line that goes, “Come on, let’s all celebrate.” If you notice, a lot of our hit songs have the next single in it, lyrically speaking. Well, we were so happy that the Ladies Night album did so well. Remember, now, we were coming off an unusual dry spell for us. I mean, we had a couple of songs in some soundtracks—Rocky and Saturday Night Fever—but in radio play, we simply hit a dry spell. So, we were really happy with the success of Ladies Night; we felt we were finally back on track—back in the groove. The whole band was in this tiny room, and we started singing, “Let’s celebrate.” There we were at the American Music Awards, and we just started singing and shouting, “Let’s Celebrate.” The song just blossomed out of that. Ronald Bell conceived the music, but everybody helped put it together. We knew in the studio that it was going to make some noise out on the street and probably even in the charts. What we didn’t know was how much noise. No one, I can tell you, imagined it would become what it did.
RS: Are there any specific Kool & The Gang songs in which you feel that you shine especially brightly as a drummer?
GB: When we did “Funky Stuff,” we were sitting at Media Sound recording studio, and suddenly a bass drum rhythm came into my head. So I started playing it. That’s where my nickname Funky George came from. I’ve always had a “thunderfoot”—a fast foot—and any song that depicts that, I think, might be one of my brightest moments as a drummer. But “Funky Stuff,” especially since it was a big record for us, is first in my heart.
RS; You play double bass drums, correct?
GB: Oh yeah. I love it. With the kind of foot I have, it works out real nice.
RS: What kind of kit are you presently playing?
RS: What is it comprised of?
GB: I use two 24″ bass drums, as I already mentioned, a standard 14″ snare, 14″ and 15″ rack toms, and 16″ and 18″ floor toms. I use Speed-King pedals, and a Yamaha heavy-duty hi-hat with a hi-hat/bass drum mount so I can play the double bass drums. I’m also using an 8″ splash, a 22″ ride cymbal, two 16″ crashes, two 22″ Chinese gongs, and a 22″ sizzle. That’s the extent of my cymbals. I also have a Simmons digital. The whole set is candy-apple red and it’s heavy—11-ply. I also use wind chimes and a cowbell. I used to use timbales; actually, I used to start off my solo, when I did one, with the timbales and then come around the set. But since then, Robert Mickens, who plays percussion, takes care of the timbales now.
RS: Is this the same set you use when recording?
GB: No. We’ve been recording for the last five years or so at the House of Music in New Jersey. They have a kit out there that I use. Some drummers might not want to do that. But during the days when we’d be on the road and I’d be borrowing kits or renting them all the time, I got used to playing different drums. As long as the pedal is a Speed-King and the kit is tuned properly and in decent shape, I can play it. I can adapt as long as the essentials are there.
RS: Do you tune your own drums?
GB: Yeah, but I do it with the engineer. We’ll work at it until it’s right. I love doing it, because I’m the type of drummer who, if I have to lay down some tracks, will want to get the drum sound perfect. It’s like a game where the object is to get that sound absolutely perfect. Once we’re ready to record, however, I don’t like to waste time. I don’t vacillate or procrastinate. I want to get in there, do the job, and make it happen right. And since I write, I’m very close to all the songs we do. I get very excited when I see the song ideas turn into songs.
RS: Can you pinpoint one particular drummer who has had a strong influence on you and your style of playing the drums?
GB: A lot of people say I play heavy like Elvin Jones. I met Elvin a couple of times. I’ve always loved his playing, so I’m sure he’s had an impact on my style. But I’ll tell you who else could fit into that category: Tony Williams, Art Blakey, Jack DeJohnette, and Buddy Rich.
RS: They’re all jazz drummers.
GB: Yeah, because that’s where I’m coming from when you get right down to it. Jazz has that freedom that I’ve always loved. Kool & The Gang plays a lot of jazz during soundcheck. Somebody will call out a tune, and we’ll play it. I get a chance to solo then; actually, we all get a chance to solo. Soundcheck, needless to say, is a lot of fun for us.
RS: If playing jazz is so much fun, why not play more of it live, or record a jazz album?
GB: Because Kool & The Gang is a commercial group; it’s a whole different trip. You have to play what people want to hear. If people buy your records and then buy tickets to see you in concert, they want to hear songs they’re familiar with. They do not want to hear you hit a jazz groove and stay with it all night. Now some people in the audience might not mind, but most would.
RS: With so many musicians on stage—ten—doesn’t the sound ever come across chaotic from your vantage point behind the drums?
GB: No, because we made sure long ago that we have fantastic monitors. Our production manager knows exactly what I want and need to hear, and he gets it for me.
RS: And what is that?
GB: Myself, first of all. I have to hear the kick, the snare, and the racks in that order of importance. As for other instruments, the keyboards are essential, so I can recognize the song and also determine how it’s flowing. Next would be the bass and then the horns, because I play a lot of the horn accents, which gives my style of playing a bit of a jazzy touch. Finally, I have to hear the vocals for the same reason that I have to hear the keyboards. As for guitars and percussion, of course, I need to hear them, too. But if I can’t, it’s not the end of the world.
RS: When you’re off the road, do you socialize with other members of Kool & The Gang?
GB: We get together quite a bit. We all have families, but since we all primarily live in New Jersey still, we have the opportunity to hang out and party together. I’ll also go down to Sweet Basil’s in Manhattan, and meet and talk with other drummers—nothing steady, just whenever I feel moved to do so.
RS: How much do you play your drums when you’re not working?
GB: Oh, I was hoping you weren’t going to ask me a question like that! I don’t have a kit at home; the way I practice is I do a lot of mental exercises. I listen to records on the radio, and I go through what is being laid down on the drums. I do it mentally.
RS: Do you actually envision yourself playing the drum part to the song you’re listening to?
GB: Yeah, I envision myself playing the part as the drummer in the song is playing it. I’ll do this at home, in the car—anywhere. Now I know this doesn’t help the chops, but it does help my ability to concentrate and to listen very much. I’ve become a great listener because of these exercises.
RS: Why don’t you keep a kit at home?
GB: It’s a funny story. I live in a condominium, and people complain if they hear the music or the drums louder than they care to. That’s why I’m presently looking for a house. But besides all this, I get bored with the sound of the drums if I play simply to practice. I’ll hit a pad now and then, however. What I like to do at home is work on and develop my reading—both as a drummer and a keyboard player. I can read, but I am not a super reader. But it’s something I wouldn’t mind becoming.
RS: Do you consider yourself a particularly confident drummer?
GB: Oh yeah. Without sounding egotistical, I know that whatever is being played, I can play to it.
RS: You mentioned before that you wouldn’t mind studying under a teacher to learn yet more about your instrument. Is there anyone you would especially like to study with?
GB: I’d have to say Tony Williams. But that’s a hard question. I think I could just as easily have said Elvin Jones. And if I thought about it further, I could probably come up with another five or six names—great drummers, innovative drummers who I wouldn’t mind learning from in the least. Drummers can never stop learning about their instrument. There are so many beats, so many styles, so many sounds— wow! It’s mind boggling.
RS: All of a sudden, it seems, everybody in pop music is getting into playing and recording for charity. Obviously, that’s a truly wonderful thing. It’s about time, actually, that many of these superstars begin to give something back to the world. Kool & The Gang, however, were doing charity gigs long before it became fashionable.
GB: We’ve always felt that it wasn’t an obligation, but a moral responsibility to do it. Kool always says, “To whom much is given, much is expected.” That’s a true statement. All the members of Kool & The Gang have been blessed with talent and success. Because of those things, we’re able to afford cars, homes, and other materialistic things. We’re very spiritual people, however, so we want to forward humanistic values and become proper role models for our fans—little ones and adults. That’s really important to us. We feel good about doing it. We’re well-off; we’re not multimillionaires, but we’re well-off.
RS: Since you are so involved with music, you must have specific goals and ambitions. Do you care to discuss them?
GB: Well, five years from now I’m going to be playing drums. Ten years from now I’m going to be still playing the drums. Twenty years from now, it will be the same thing. I am a drummer and will always be a drummer. But I’d also like to realize a career as a producer, and perhaps maybe even do some acting. I’ve got big goals that I want just to accomplish. God willing, I’ll do just that.
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